British Columbia

Abbotsford, Surrey soccer clubs looking for more girls

Abbotsford and Surrey are looking at ways to tackle stereotypes and bring more girls into the sport of soccer.

Places that have lower registration are tailoring their approach to help attract more girls

Tanya Sumra plays soccer in Surrey. (Jennifer Chen)

Abbotsford and Surrey are looking at ways to tackle stereotypes and bring more girls into the sport of soccer. The CBC's Jen Chen went to find out how.

On a bright evening at Bear Creek Park in Surrey, the fields were full of children and soccer balls.

Tanya Sumra bounded over in her cleats, full of excitement and energy. The seven-year-old was just about to start practice. 

"First we play passes... and then we play a game,"  she said.

Her heroes are Messi, Rooney, and her favourite team is England. Does she watch any women's soccer? "No." Why not? "Mmmm... I don't know." 

Her father Jag Sumra, who coaches the girls, says visibility is a big part of why there aren't more girls on the field.

Julie King and Ian Knight from the Abbotsford Soccer Club are trying to encourage more girls to play soccer with programs like Sisters in Soccer. (Jennifer Chen)

"What you see on TV are always men. There wasn't really a notion of women on TV."

If there were more women's soccer games shown on television, he says, it would make a difference.

In Surrey, boys dominate on the soccer fields. Nationwide, females make up about 40 per cent of all registered soccer players, but in some parts of the Lower Mainland, the number is much lower. The United Summer Soccer League runs about 80 teams and 20 of them are for girls. 

A large part of the community is South Asian, and Sim Sumra says that the cultural perception of soccer and sports does play into the lower participation rates for girls.

"Going back in time, boys go out and play. Girls don't. That mentality has to be out," says Sumra, who helps to run the U.S.S. league in Surrey.

"We do have some people that just think, 'Okay, my boy's playing, that's good enough.' The dynamics have to change for the parents."

It's important to educate parents, but there are other ways the league is trying to reach girls with a different approach. 

"They're built different. They've got more sensitivity. I think the concept of fun is so important, more for girls than boys," Sumra says.  

Girls helping girls build support

Pavin Burra helps run the micro-program for three- and four-year-olds. She started with the micro-program and said she didn't like it at first, but it grew on her. Now she's 17-years-old and she's passing her knowledge and her love of soccer on to others, as a youth coach.  

Girls play soccer at Surrey's Bear Creek Park. (Jennifer Chen)

"It's a lot of fun. Girls here, they'd rather play gymnastics. But as you can tell a lot of them really like playing," she says looking at the girls running on the grass field, screaming and laughing and kicking the ball,  smiles on their faces. 

In Abbotsford, the soccer club is dealing with similar issues, trying to get more girls to participate.

"Historically it's something that's not seen as traditional, if you will, for girls to play soccer," says Ian Knight, technical director for the Abbotsford Soccer Club. In his club, the ratio of boys to girls is about two to one.

Julie King runs the Sisters in Soccer program, part of the club's strategy to attract girls. It's a female development program that includes mentoring, nurturing female coaches, and a girl-specific curriculum. The club is seeing some success from its outreach to primary schools in the area.

"The social aspect is huge I think when you're teaching girls, you've got to be cognizant of that," King says. 

"Girls want to get things right. It shouldn't be a difference in the way we teach, more importantly what we teach."

Knight says girls can suffer from confidence, and the girl-specific programming can help build camaraderie and self-esteem.

Soccer teaches team building

Mercedes Meincke is 14 and she says she's learned a lot as a goalkeeper, and as part of a team. 

"I think I've learned to be less bossy and I've learned to cooperate with people a lot more through soccer, because it's a team sport and you need all those other people to help you win the game."

While some of her classmates prefer to join gymnastics or dance, Meincke has no doubt she is in the right place. 

"At our school it's a big deal if you play soccer and you're a girl. It shows you know how to fight — fight for what you want, and fight for what you believe in," she says.

The programming in Abbotsford is designed to help girls like Meincke succeed in soccer right through high school. 

Abbotsford's Sisters in Soccer program is supported by more experienced players, like Sophie Schmidt. She's a bronze medallist from the 2012 Olympics and she is a member of the women's national team. She grew up in Abbotsford and she says it wasn't easy when she was pursuing her soccer dream. 

"Growing up I wasn't aware of the possibilities, and it was more of a men's game," she says. "My parents, they didn't understand why I wanted to play soccer so much." 

Schmidt says she is committed to giving back. She has worked and trained with girls on the field and spends time speaking to children in schools. 

Many people supporting girls in soccer are looking ahead to next year, when Canada hosts the Women's World Cup.  

Clubs like Abbotsford hope that more visibility in women's soccer will inspire young girls watching at home to get out onto the field and learn to love the game — for life.